Suzanne Moon – Technology and Ethical Idealism

21 August, 2021 - examPrep

Suzanne Moon’s Technology and Ethical Idealism: A History of Development in the Netherlands East Indies examines Dutch development efforts in the Indies from 1900 to 1942 through several distinct phases of development schemes. First, Melchior Treub’s techno-determinist “better seeds” project sought to purify rice lines at highly centralized experiment stations staffed by credentialed plant biologists; the scientific superiority of these efforts and the obvious material superiority of these seeds would, apparently, be sufficient to cause their widespread dissemination among Indonesian farmers. Recognizing the social and ecological limitations of Treub’s purely technical intervention, Hermann Lovink’s decentralizing beliefs in “close contact”, while maintaining support for the project of “better seeds”, sought to add to this purely technical project an insistence on local particularity and indigenous intimacy resulting in widely dispersed seed gardens, demonstration plots, and increasing numbers of European and indigenous agricultural extensionists. Later, beginning in 1918, J. Sabinga Mulder rejected the possibility of small-holder development and instead argued (he was an ex-sugar planter) that the indigenous population would be more successfully economically developed through plantation wage labor under which assumption he set out to (disastrously) establish a large-scale fully-mechanized rice plantation system a la California on Sumatra. In the aftermath of Mulder’s blunder, L. Koch’s and T. J. Lekkerkerker’s “betting on the strong” approach to development followed, under the influence of J. H. Boeke’s “dual-economies” thesis, which posited that there simultaneously existed in colonies a globally-integrated European market economy and a local indigenous economy replete with its own (quite different) economic logics of land, labor, capital, and value. According to this thesis, development projects of the past sputtered because they operated under the assumption that the indigenous population was responsive to economic stimuli and incentives inherent to the global market economy when in fact they were, in the main, participants in an entirely different economy with a different set of needs and values. The “strong” Koch and Lekkerkerker were betting on were those indigenous farmers with a foot in both sides of the dual economy — wealthier, with larger landholdings and access to more credit — and therefore supposedly more likely to adopt Dutch agrotechnological interventions (and then serve as demonstrative exemplars for other farmers to emulate). In this way, over the course of the first half of the 20th-century, Dutch development schemes in Indonesia evolved from targeting technologies, to targeting technologies in specific locales and social conditions, to targeting technologies in specific locales and social conditions and toward specific (more receptive) recipients.

There is, in hindsight, a certain laughable naivete to titling a colonial development approach “Ethical Idealism” and I am curious to learn how this mentality manifested in other (non-technical) colonial development goals. Moon carefully points out along the way the manner in which the technical manifestations of Ethical Idealism contrasted with other manifestations (notably, its technical projects seemed never to resort to coercion to achieve their adoption goals). Ethical Idealism seemed to bear the brunt of responsibility for the communist uprisings of the latter 1920s, but it is not clear how this responsibility came to be associated with Ethical Idealism’s technical projects and one assumes that political or economic Ethical Idealism projects might have been more straightforwardly responsible. I am also curious about the intellectual historical context of Ethical Idealism. Where are these people getting this idea? Was it rooted in the demonstrable failure of some preexisting development regime in the Netherlands East Indies?

At the heart of this story, running as a throughline amongst all of the agrotechnological development interventions of the first half of the 20th-century is an inherent conflict between the welfare of the indigenous population and the welfare of the colonial state. Time and again development projects, both proposed and enacted, come into conflict with the interests of European cash-croppers or the colonial exchequer. As Moon summarizes it in her conclusion, “The bigger question, therefore, was not whether the indigenous people should transform, but whether they should try to do so while still under colonial control, building their power through ownership of industry . . . or biding their time until a nationalist revolution would enable them to both fully direct and benefit from those changes . . ..” Over 40 years, Dutch development planners attempted to contemplate every conceivable variable for their failure: indigenous lethargy, technological appropriateness, ecological compatibility, project scale, economic incentive structure, transmigration, and others, but there was one variable they never contemplated — coloniality. What if the indigenous population was disinclined to participate, or the technologies were never performant, or the economics never added up, or ecological compatibility could not be attained, because of the colonial context of the intervention?

One final lingering question Moon leaves the reader is “[w]hether these colonial ideals did or did not translate into post-colonial politics and practice.” They seem, from the historiography of post-war international development to clearly have translated to those kinds of projects, but of more pressing interest is whether Dutch colonial development ideals inflected postcolonial Indonesian endogenous economic development projects. If development projects almost invariably fail in colonial contexts because of intrinsic conflicts between the colonizing executor and colonized target of those projects, what happens when residues of colonial development mentalities persist in post-colonial national economic development plans?


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